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leica M7        built for more than a lifetime

Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, April 2010

The history of 35mm rangefinder cameras reaches back to the Nineteen-Twenties. Oscar Barnack, head of development of Leitz Wetzlar, was the driving force behind the Leica that started the era of 35mm photography. As early as 1905 he had the idea of reducing the large negative format and enlarging the negatives at a later stage of the process. The camera he invented originates from a device for testing exposures of 18 x 24 mm cinema film, and his momentous idea to double this format to 24 x 36 mm and expose cinema film in a camera with an aspect ratio of 2:3. Delayed by the first world war, production started in 1924, and in 1925 the very first 35mm Leica was launched. The concept was crowned with success and changed the world of photojournalism. The Leica M is a true legend, a statement of exceptional quality.

Haptic and perception
Major features of modern 35mm film cameras are still the same as in the early M Leicas, like the film cartridges and focal plane shutters. In 2010, rangefinder cameras still have their place in bags of many photographers - for good reason. Even as a true fan of Nikon I've always had an eye on Leica M rangefinder cameras. Their simple, sturdy look and built quality gave me kind of a thrill every time I saw one in a shop window. I knew I couldn't have it, as prices of bodies and lenses were way above my budget at that time. Leica M7 Some decades later and no more constraints with the budget, it was about the right time to get that camera I desired for so many years. I never had a Leica M in my hands before, but the decision to buy was irrevocable and I decided for the analog M7. Built from the most advanced metal alloys the body feels rugged, all external controls are made from solid metal. There are no gadgets, no unnecessary electronic ballast. The M7 is a all-metal, simple camera, it takes me to the essentials of photography without the distraction of full automation. It is made for taking pictures you see, frame and expose, while all decisions remain with the photographer. The development of the LEICA M cameras incorporates decades of solid experience in Leica Germany. It is the quintessence of rangefinder cameras, which you can sense as soon as you hold such masterpiece in your hands. Leica lenses are of outstanding optical performance and mechanical quality. Setting the aperture and focus of such lenses is pure pleasure, smooth and precise operation guaranteed. LEICA M cameras are ever reliable and submit to the skills of the photographer. Its controls are all metal, and the robust body can withstand harsh conditions. The analog LEICA M7 is a classic rangefinder camera that can create an emotional relationship between the photographer, the subject and the camera.

Features & Specifications
Leica M's are not burdened with electronic over-complication. There is nothing to spoil the act of photography, which remains about the scenery, image composition and exposure by using the most evolved optical performance and utter mechanical reliability. As an alternative to manual exposure setting between 4s and 1/1000s, the LEICA M7 offers also aperture priority auto mode with infinitely variable exposure times up to 32s and exposure memory lock by pressing the shutter release half-way down. This allows to focus easily, meter and re-compose quickly and thus devote full attention to taking the photograph. The Leica M7 rangefinder displays bright-line frame combinations according to the focal length of the lens, and it has a frame selector for comparing with frames of other lenses actually not mounted on the camera.

With regard to technical features there are rangefinder cameras more advanced than the M7, and compared to modern SLR cameras its specifications appear even outdated. Just thinking of the classic Nikon FE2 or the marvelous FM3A, the features of today's Leica M7 in fact were state of the art in the nineteen eighties. The Contax G rangefinder system, for example, is better for fast shooting and costs only a fraction of a Leica M. Leica M cameras, however, are made for reliable operation in any condition, not to outperform specifications in the annual technical contest of new camera models. To go from one extreme to the other, most digital SLR cameras are crammed with (junk) features, which one can't even remember when using these camaeras. Such cameras can be a pain in the neck as they can keep the photographer quite busy with miniaturized push buttons and endless menus in multiple menu banks. On the contrary, using a Leica M7 is a real relieve. It is a superior camera not only for careful photography and manual focusing, but in the hands of experienced photographers also for fast street photography without causing much attention. With its bright, crystal clear rangefinder the M7 is perfect for work at night, last but not least also due to its meter and exposure system supporting long exposure times. The domain of a Leica M7 is manual photography, and its statement is "simplicity".

As many other cameras also the Leica M7 got a couple of design flaws, of which one is more serious. It may happen that users think their M7 has unexpectedly jammed after loading new film and winding the first few frames. The reason is that the lens cap still covering the lens and the shutter speed dial set on aperture priority (A) causes the M7 to shift to its maximum auto shutter speed of 32s. This is indeed quite a long delay between winding frames. Because the shutter is silent, you may not know what's going on unless you look through the finder and realize the 32s countdown. My Nikon F3 bought in 1982 switches the shutter speed to 1/80s until the frame counter is on "0", but not a Leica M7 that I picked up in 2009. Therefore remember to set a fast manual shutter speed before loading film into the M7. Should you still once forget, just turn the shutter speed dial to another position to interrupt the 32s exposure. One would think that this is not a big deal, but the real trouble starts with inexperienced users, who in such situation may continue their attempt to wind the shutter.

Where is my mirror?
For those who want to discover photography with a rangefinder camera it is important to understand how rangefinder systems work and how they differ from viewfinders of SLR cameras, as well as to know strengths and limitations.

SLR viewfinders
Rangefinders are fundamentally different from the viewfinders of SLR cameras, in which the scene is viewed, focused and metered directly through-the-lens (TTL). Essentially nothing disturbs the view in SLR cameras as the image is framed "inside" the dark viewfinder and shows the final result including the effect of filters. By pressing the depth of field preview button you see exactly what you will get. However, such advantages come at price: Mirror vibrations may cause a blur effect on images, depending on the camera and its mirror damper mechanism. This effect is not relevant at shutter speeds shorter than the reciprocal of the lens’s focal range (for example 1/60s for 60 mm lens) but it has an effect between approximately 1/60s and 1/4s exposure time. In SLR cameras the distance between lens and film is much bigger due to the space required for the mirror. This requires a special lens design, which has negative impact on the optical quality, especially of shorter wide-angle lenses. The viewfinder in SLR cameras has a blackout every time the mirror flips up, and the shutter lag is bigger than with rangefinder cameras.

Rangefinder systems
Rangefinder cameras differ from SLR cameras as the scene is not viewed and focused through-the-lens. Instead, you compose and focus through a window on the top right. Focusing in rangefinders is realized via a mechanism using a dual-image rangefinder device, which determines the distance to object using the geometric technique of triangulation. When two superimposed images line up, the system is in focus. Typically a rangefinder system uses three windows arranged in a row above the lens mount, which are the rangefinder window on the left, a window in the middle to light up the frame lines, and the viewfinder window on the right to compose and focus.

Rangefinder cameras generally allow for better optical performance. Since there is no mirror like in a SLR, lenses for rangefinder cameras can be designed that rear elements come closer to the image plane, which particularly results in wide-angle lenses much smaller, sharper and with less distortion than SLR lenses. Even super wide-angle lenses show little to no distortion. In absence of the reflex mirror there is no vibration to blur hand-held images, which is especially an advantage at speeds between1/60s and 1/4s. Rangefinder cameras allow more precise focusing for wide and normal lenses. Rangefinder cameras are much quieter as there is no mirror flipping up and down, and viewfinders never blackout as there is no mirror blocking the view. You can focus, compose and shoot with both eyes open, which keeps you always directly "connected" with the scene. Rangefinder cameras practically have no shutter lag. You press the button and off it goes, you capture the moment instantly. With rangefinder cameras dim light is not a big problem. As long as there is enough light to see, you can focus a rangefinder camera.

Leica M7As there are two sides to everything there are also disadvantages and limitations. Most irritating for newcomers is that you never see what exactly you will get. The viewfinder is necessarily offset from the lens and sees from a different point of view, which is negligible at large subject distances, but has an adverse effect for long tele-lenses or macro photography known as parallax error. For extreme close-up photography, the rangefinder camera is awkward to use. With a rangefinder you have no information about depth of field, as you don't view through the lens. While in an SLR the image always fills the entire viewfinder with different perspectives according to the focal length of the lens, in a rangefinder you always see the same perspective with only the frame lines changing according to the focal length of the lens. In an extreme case, for example a long tele-lens, you are looking only at a small cutout frame in the large finder, or with a wide angle lens wider than about 28mm, there are no more frame lines and you need to mount a separate extra-wide accessory viewfinder on your camera. Leica M7That means, you focus and set exposure through the main rangefinder, and compose through the separate wide finder. Most lenses block a part of the view in the right lower corner of the finder. Some lens hoods have cutouts to try to work around this interference, whereby the emphasis is on "try". Rangefinder cameras rarely focus closer than to a distance of 0.5 - 1m, so taking macro and close-up is practically excluded from your work with rangefinder cameras. As opto-mechanical precision instruments rangefinders should get serviced from time to time in order to maintain good results.
To sum up, a rangefinder system requires the photographer to foresee how various conditions will influence the final image, most of all the influence of the aperture on the depth of field. Sadly enough, with a Leica M you'll never see the aesthetic quality of Leica's lenses bokeh while composing an image. For correct composition of the picture it is important to know of the relevant frame lines according to the focal length of the lens mounted on the camera, and to get along with the fact that the view may be partly impaired by the lens and hood. Once you get accustomed to these limitations you can benefit from better image quality and more spontaneous, unobtrusive photography.

Last but not least, be warned that one of the key features of rangefinder cameras can end in a big embarrassment for newcomers: while you can nicely view the uninterrupted, sharp image all the time when you compose your image, you won't see if the lens cap is still on. But don't worry, friendly people standing nearby will tell you, and people in bigger distance will show hand gestures to you - I went through this. My tip to get out of it nicely: keep a low profile, try not to blush and pretend that you were just metering the light according to the Zone System by Ansel Adams.

Well done Leica, I really love my M7!

Leica M7
Camera type
35mm rangefinder system camera
Focus control
AF area modes
Large, bright viewfinder with automatic parallax compensation.
Viewfinder optical system with reduced stray light sensitivity.
Bright lines activated in pairs and automatically displayed according
to the lens mounted. Magnification 0.72x (optional 0.85x and 0.58x).
Exposure metering
TTL, center weighted working aperture exposure metering system;
the 12mm measuring field equals to approx. 13% of full film format or
in the viewfinder to 2/3 of the short side of the relevant bright line frame.
Exposure modes
Aperture-priority auto control (A), manual exposure control (M).
Exposure compensation yes
Auto exposure memory lock
yes (by pressing shutter release halfway)
Rubberized cloth horizontal shutter, electronically controlled,
two mechanically controlled speeds: 1/60s and 1/125s.
Shutter speeds
Automatic mode: 32s to 1/1000s (infinitely variable).
Manual mode: 4s to 1/1000s (in whole increments).
Bulb for long time exposures.
Film speed range
DX coded: ISO 25 to ISO 5000, Manual: ISO 6 to ISO 6400
Film speed setting
DX coding, manual setting
Film loading
Film advance modes
Film rewind
Viewfinder display
Symbol for flash status
Film speed information
Exposure compensation warning
Shutter speed (in automatic mode)
Indicators for manual exposure control
Auto exposure lock indicator
Overexposure and underexposure indication
Remaining seconds for exposure times slower than 2s
Progress counter of expired exposure time in bulb mode
Flash unit connection
ISO-Standard accessory shoe
Flash synchronization
1/50s in auto mode (up to 1/1000s with high speed sync flash units),
below 1/50s in manual exposure mode.
Flash exposure metering TTL metering (center weighted).
Flash sync modes
Synchronization with 1st (front) or 2nd (rear) shutter curtain.
Mirror lock-up
Depth of field preview
Self timer
Multiple exposure
2 x DL 1/3N Lithium batteries
Other features
Frame selector to view frames which do not correspond
to the lens actually fitted to the camera

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